That phrase, "the South" (see map above, click to enlarge), carries different meanings for different people, with considerable overlap. The region is poorly understood by those who have not lived or visited there. Southerners take great pride in their culture, history, customs, musical styles, and cuisines. Non-Southerners tend to resort to stereotypes (which have some basis in fact) ~ poverty, illiteracy, conservatism, racism, fundamentalist religion. But these traits don't even come close to summing up what it means to be a Southerner.
I lived for six months in Georgia, six months in Texas, one year in South Carolina, and five years in Tennessee. During that time I discovered friendships and professional relationships which I shall always cherish. I also encountered those negative stereotypes ~ but people from every region have them.
There is no single, monolithic South. Individual states, and sometimes areas within states, have their own Southern dialect, their own customs and traditions. Many Southerners can tell if you grew up in Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, or Virginia merely by listening to you talk for a few moments. Most non-Southerners don't have the nuances down, and lump it all together as a Southern accent. Their loss.
The definition of the South has changed over time. Currently the Census Bureau includes sixteen states within the American South, containing 115 million people, or one third of the U.S. population. At various times we've referred to the Old South, the New South, the Solid South, the Deep South, the Gulf South, the Upper South, the Border South, etc. Like the other Census Bureau regions ~ the West, the Midwest, the Northeast ~ the South is too complex and varied to conveniently define with one set of traits.
I was reminded of all this while reading Pat Conroy's excellent novel South of Broad. During one passage in his story's arc, he pauses to reflect on people's reactions to Southerners. The story's narrator is a newspaper columnist writing in the 1980s and 1990s. Here are his thoughts ~
"I never knew how strange a breed of cat a Southerner is until I began to travel around the country. Only then did I learn that the Southerner represents a disfigurement in the national psyche, a wart or carbuncle that requires either a lengthy explanation or cosmetic surgery whenever I would stumble upon the occasional Vermonter or Oregonian or Nebraskan in my journeys. I could grow testy when I met up with folks whose hostility toward the South seemed based on ignorance. I once compiled a list in my column about the reasons people seem to hate the South, and I invited my readers to add to the literature of contemptuousness a Southerner might encounter on the road. My list was fairly simple:
- Some people hate Southern accents.
- Some fools think all Southerners are stupid because of those accents.
- Some dopes still blame me for the Civil War, though I remember killing only three Yankees at Antietam.
- Many black people I have met outside the South blame me personally for Jim Crow laws, segregation, the need for the civil rights movement, the death of Martin Luther King, the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, all lynchings, and the scourge of slavery.
- Movie buffs hate the South because they have seen Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, In the Heat of the Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Easy Rider.
- A man from Ohio hates the South because he once ate grits at the Atlanta airport. He admitted that he put milk and sugar on them and thought it was the worst cream of wheat he'd ever tasted.
- Many women who married Southern men, then divorced them, hate the South, as do any men who married Southern women and divorced them. All men and women who marry Southerners, then divorce them, hate their Southern mothers-in-law ~ ergo the entire South.
- All liberals based in other geographies hate the South because it is so conservative. They refuse to believe that any true liberals could also be Southern.
- All women not from the South hate Southern women because Southern women consider themselves far more beautiful than women of the lesser states.
- All Americans who are not Southern hate the South because they know Southerners don't give a rat's fanny what the rest of the country thinks about them.
"That column struck such a nerve in the community [Charleston, SC] that I received more than a thousand letters pro and con."
One final observation ~ most non-Southerners do not understand the grieving, hallowed place which the Civil War (or in Southern terms, the War Between the States) occupies in Southern history. As one young New Jersey native put it to several Southern co-workers, "I don't get it. You lost. Get over it." A little more empathy would have prompted my Jersey friend to realize that when your native land is invaded, pillaged, cities burned to the ground, and then you lose and must endure the humiliation of military occupation, that's not something easily forgotten. Even now, 147 years after the end of that murderous conflict, that war is a painful subject for many Southerners, regardless of their politics or their views on slavery. I understand why.